The Far Right in France

Since the late 19th century, French politics has provided a testing ground for right-wing populism.

Antisemitic riots in Algiers, 1898-99 © Bridgeman Images.
On 8 May 1898, 54-year-old Édouard Drumont won the seat of Algiers with a crushing majority of 11,557 votes against 2,328. One of four victorious right-wing candidates in the city who had all campaigned on an antisemitic platform, he was carried shoulder-high by an emotional crowd, joyful at the dramatic breakthrough of Drumont’s popular ethnic nationalism. But his victory went against the national trend. Overall the national result ushered in a period of rule dominated by moderate republicans, radicals and socialists, who embarked on an anti-clerical programme that climaxed with the separation of Church and state in 1905. 
 
Drumont, one of the fiercest opponents of this anti-Catholic campaign, was not from French Algeria, which after the invasion of 1830 had been annexed as an integral part of France, in theory no different from Brittany. He was Parisian. However, his aggressive right-wing populism – authoritarian, anti republican, anti-capitalist – had found a willing audience among the poor Europeans  in French Algeria. Arriving from France, Italy and Spain, these settlers, numbering nearly one million by the 1890s, felt threatened. Although their French citizenship (granted in 1889) had given them a privileged position over the disenfranchised Arab and Berber majority, they sensed that this status was fragile. They were fearful of the native population which, rather than dying out  in the wake of colonialism, had undergone a demographic resurgence and was now outnumbering them nearly four to one. 
 
The settlers were fearful, too, of the Parisian political elite. They hated the manner in which Paris had bestowed citizenship to Algerian Jews in 1870, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge, opening the door to their worst nightmare: Muslim enfranchisement.  These fears produced an explosion of antisemitic papers and tracts in French Algeria during the 1890s, where the key voice was Max Régis, a law student in his mid-20s. As the leader of the Anti-Jewish League, whose paper enjoyed a circulation of 20,000, his inflammatory language inspired widespread violence across Algeria on 18 January 1898, when Jews were attacked, Jewish shops looted and synagogues desecrated. Speaking a few weeks later to an antisemitic meeting in Paris, Régis warned: ‘We will water the tree of liberty with the blood of the Jews.’
 
It was in this violent atmosphere that Drumont was elected. He had already denounced the enfranchisement of Algerian Jews in 1886, in his two-volume 1,200-page book Jewish France, a publishing sensation that by the end of that year had become a bestseller in France, selling over 100,000 copies. Across the Mediterranean, rural Catholic France had also embraced Drumont’s message with the right-wing press calling the book ‘instructive’ and ‘courageous’, while the author himself was praised as a ‘good soldier of Jesus’. Significantly, too, the conservative Le Petit Journal, one of the world’s biggest dailies with a circulation of over 500,000, gave the book away as a prize and published extracts.  Drumont had found a popular readership, whose appetite he whetted still further with more editions, including a luridly illustrated three-volume version and a single-volume abridged version aimed at peasants and workers, both published in 1887. In the meantime he wrote a flurry of books whose apocalyptic titles – The End of the World (1888) and The Last Battle (1890) – signalled to his audience that they had to prepare for a final struggle against the principal enemy: the Jewish race. 
 

Popular poison

In these terms, Drumont’s principal target was the Third Republic, formed in the wake of defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, which he denounced as a Jewish plot. His every word spitting with anger, Drumont warned of a Jewish minority at the heart of the Republic pulling the strings of power. Here, Drumont reserved particular venom for the French Revolution. Although the Third Republic talked about 1789 as a progressive event, representing the defeat of monarchical tyranny, in reality the Revolution, by bestowing equality on the Jews, had given them the free rein to enslave France.
 
caricature of Édouard Drumont on the cover of La Libre Parole, 10 November 1894 Photo © Leonard de Selva/Bridgeman Images.
 
Drumont’s writings cast French history as a race war between high-minded Christian Aryans, possessing notions of justice, goodness and liberty, and traitorous Jews driven by base instincts and low cunning. As such he recycled anti-Jewish stereotypes that had abounded since the Middle Ages. Jews were seen to be Christ killers who, obsessed with money, were trying to destroy Christendom from within. At the same time, though, Drumont encapsulated a new type of racial antisemitism. For him Jews were the symbol of the modern world that, with its unprecedented pace of economic and social change, was so deeply unnerving for large numbers of French people. The Jews, Drumont claimed, were dangerous because their rootless and parasitic characteristics meant that they were able to manipulate modernity for their own ruthless ends.
 
It was a powerful narrative which, in providing an explanation for the long economic hardship that had begun with the 1873 global economic depression, also stirred up hatred towards Paris as the centre of political power. If during the Medieval  period the capital had been the epitome of Catholic devotion, since 1789 Paris had become a Jewish city – corrupt, sinful, decadent. From this vantage point, Drumont argued, Jews had carefully built a centrally controlled political system that was now waging war on Catholic provincial France, in alliance with freemasons and Protestants who, he claimed, were little more than half-Jews, using Christianity as a cloak to disguise their underhand machinations. Above all, Drumont ranted, this rotting centre explained why the Third Republic did not put French people first.
 
Drumont was a new type of politician: a right-wing populist. Unlike traditional conservatives, he did not fear the masses. On the contrary, he wanted to stir up a popular insurgency that would throw off this supposed Jewish elite and then permanently exclude them from public life. Some of Drumont’s language was taken from French socialists, who in the 1880s had pedalled antisemitism  by making an equation between Jews and capitalism. But his language also belonged to the French Revolutionary tradition, even if Drumont was using it for different ends. Drumont’s aim was not emancipation from the monarchy but from ‘Jewish dominance’. 
 
With this end in mind, Drumont ruthlessly exploited new forms of mass communication, epitomised by the popular press which really took off in the last quarter of the 19th century. This press was defined by the combination of bold images with dramatic headlines, designed to capture immediate attention on the newsstands. Drumont’s paper The Free Word (La Libre Parole), launched in 1892, became infamous for its eye-catching covers which peddled grotesque depictions of Jews bent on world domination. 
 

J’accuse...!

What catapulted The Free Word to the centre of French politics, though, was the Panama Scandal, one of the largest financial scandals of the 19th century. The building of the Panama Canal, linking the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean, had begun in 1881 under the auspices of the Panama Company set up by Ferdinand Lesseps, already famous for his construction of the Suez Canal. When difficult terrain threatened to scupper the whole project, the Company bribed members of parliament to approve a large loan to save  the project. Despite this, in 1889 the Company went bankrupt, at which point 800,000 French investors lost an estimated 1.8 billion francs. The extent of the scandal was not revealed until three years later, when Drumont played the crucial role in exposing Baron Jacques Reinach and Cornelius Herz, both from the Panama Company, as the middle men who had distributed the bribes in parliament. Drumont cannily used the revelations to boost circulation figures. Rather than publishing in one go the details of which parliamentary members they bribed and how, Drumont revealed a new list of culprits each day, creating a drip effect that kept the story going.  Specifically, Drumont seized upon the fact that both were German-born Jewish financiers as proof of a vast Jewish conspiracy in the corridors of power. In this way, Drumont mixed fact with fiction to fuel a climate of paranoia that led many French people, still angry about the Panama Scandal, to accept his arguments and blame Jews for their economic problems.
 
 ‘Le Juif et la France’ exhibition, Paris, c.1941 © Roger Viollet/Getty Images.
 
In this paranoid atmosphere, in 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish staff officer born in Alsace, was court-martialled for passing military secrets to Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island off French Guiana. Over the next three years, as doubts about Dreyfus’ guilt surfaced, the case mushroomed into another huge scandal that became known as the ‘Dreyfus Affair’. 
 
In January 1898 the novelist Émile Zola wrote an open letter, J’Accuse, in which he accused the army of an antisemitic conspiracy. A group of right-wing officers, Zola claimed, knew that Dreyfus was innocent but had fabricated evidence to cover up the injustice. Eventually, a retrial took place in 1898, which still found Dreyfus guilty although now with the caveat of ‘extenuating circumstances’.  With the army’s dignity preserved Dreyfus was given an immediate presidential pardon. Yet, even if the victory of the pro-Dreyfusards was undeniable, so too was the fact that ethnic nationalism was now part of the French political landscape. Drumont was not an isolated example on the European stage. His populist politics mirrored that of Wilhelm Marr in Germany who, coining the term antisemitism, established the Anti-Semitic League in 1879, and Georg von Schönerer in Austria, who brought a racist antisemitic style and content to Viennese politics in the 1880s and 1890s. Moreover, it was a climate conditioned by two further factors. First, there was the rise of modern nationalism where, particularly in the new Balkan states that emerged from the shrinking Ottoman Empire, national leaders became intent on vilifying ethnic groups that did not fit the new national norms. Second, there was the growth of Social-Darwinism that saw history in terms of a race war. 
 
Italian postcard in support of Alfred Dreyfus, 1898 © Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images.In France this right-wing populism came to the fore with the Boulanger movement, which coalesced around the figure of General Georges Boulanger, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, who was appointed as War Minister in 1886. Rapidly, Boulanger won popularity with the wider public as he called for an authoritarian style of government, while also styling himself as the one man ready to stand up to Germany, hence his nickname ‘General Revenge’. Fearing a coup, the government dismissed him from the army in 1887, but this allowed him to form a movement which won a series of stunning by-elections, including in Paris in January 1889. Arguably these were the first mass campaigns in French history – the country was flooded with ceramic figures and posters of Boulanger – that were accompanied by a rising tide of street violence. Urged on by his supporters, Boulanger seemed poised to take power, but at the crucial moment he lost his nerve and fled to Belgium. Two years later he committed suicide on the grave of his mistress.
 

French Action

Despite this ignominious end, the Boulanger movement was a testing ground for a new type of mass politics, difficult to place on the political spectrum because it was a synthesis of left- and right-wing ideas. Boulanger enjoyed mass support from Parisian working-class districts. The movement was also a testing ground for a new type of activist. One of those was Drumont, even though he never formally joined the Boulanger movement. Another was Maurice Barrès, elected in 1889 at the age of 27 on a ticket of nationalism, socialism and protectionism. A rising star of the literary scene, Barrès proclaimed the nation to be sacrosanct. However, he did not equate the nation with ‘the people’ or ‘the rights of citizens’. For him these ideas, derived from 1789, were too abstract. Instead he saw the nation as an entity rooted in the soil as well as the lived experiences of the family, the village and the region.
 
Yet another new activist was Charles Maurras, who in 1898, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, was 30 years old. Like Drumont and Barrès, he saw Jews, Protestants and freemasons as the enemies within, although Maurras added a further catch-all category derived from Greek for foreign residents: metic (métèque). Maurras looked back in horror at ancient Athens because of the way, in his view, the Athenian authorities had committed a fatal error: giving citizenship to foreigners who had no concept of civic values. In his opinion the Third Republic was now making the same mistake. 
 
Léon Blum, leader of the Popular Front, delivers a speech at the Hotel Moderne, Paris, May 1936 © Keystone/Getty Images.
 
The word had circulated in academic circles since the 18th century but now, under the auspices of Maurras and his movement French Action (Action Française), it took root in right-wing politics and was used to stigmatise all the recently arrived poor migrants from Italy and Poland. Above all, Maurras was horrified by these people because, in his opinion, they were rootless and had no understanding of the centuries-old traditions that moulded France. Moreover, he argued, their presence was going to result in a mass miscegenation that could potentially destroy the cultural unity of the French nation. With victory in the First World War –  the patriotic high point of the Third Republic – the appeal of this right-wing populism receded. Drumont died in 1917, followed by Barrès in 1923. A resurgence came, however, with the Great Depression, sparked by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, to which the Third Republic had no solution. This economic crisis quickly became a political crisis, with right-wing leagues rioting outside the National Assembly on 6 February 1934.
 

From victory to Vichy

Two years later the Popular Front came to power, an alliance of the Radical, Socialist and Communist Parties that was formed in response to the right-wing leagues. The fact that this government was led by Léon Blum, the Jewish leader of the Socialist Party, produced rage on the part of Maurras, who saw the Popular Front as the façade for a new and even more deadly Jewish menace: Bolshevism. During the election campaign, Maurras stated that Blum was a man to be shot, preferably in the back – views that led  a French Action mob to attack Blum in the street, shouting ‘Death to the Jew’. These sentiments explain why some right-wingers were happy at the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940. Maurras called it  a ‘divine surprise’, because defeat opened the way to the authoritarian regime led by the 84-year-old First World War hero Marshal Phillip Pétain. Based in the spa town of Vichy, the regime launched a crusade, known as the National Revolution, that enacted the ideas of Drumont, Barrès and Maurras. Crucial to this crusade was institutionalised antisemitism in the form of the Jewish Statute of 3 October 1940, which defined Jewishness in racial  terms (anyone with two Jewish grandparents) and barred Jews from elected office, the civil service, journalism and teaching. Four days later Vichy also stripped Algerian Jews of their citizenship. 
 
dvertisement for a newspaper supporting General Boulanger, c.1886. Alamy.
 
This legislation was applied by the Commission on Jewish Affairs, created in March 1941, which also established a huge touring exhibition, ‘The Jews and France’. Opening in Paris in September 1941, the exhibition’s inaugural ceremony included the reading of a Drumont poem, ‘Jews Get Out’, and the unveiling of a plaque where he had once lived in Paris with the inscription: ‘Drumont foresaw the disease from which France nearly died.’ Importantly, none of this action was the result of Nazi pressure. The impetus came from the Vichy authorities, who also willingly collaborated in the deportation of 75,721 Jews, of whom just three per cent returned at the end of the war. At the Liberation in the summer of 1944, the Resistance, largely inspired by republican values, was triumphant. Now right-wing ethnic populism seemed permanently vanquished; a defeat encapsulated in the trials of Vichy leaders, who were either executed or given lengthy prison sentences. Maurras was condemned to life imprisonment, a verdict that led him to shout out in the court room ‘It is Dreyfus’ revenge’. Released in March 1952 due to ill health, he died shortly afterwards. 
 

Same message

Right-wing populism momentarily resurfaced in the mid-1950s in the guise of Pierre Poujade, a stationer from Lot in south-west France, then in his early 30s. Strongly antisemitic and anti-communist, Poujade gathered support from peasants, shopkeepers and the lower middle classes, the groups most at peril from the post-1945 economic miracle. Here special anger was reserved for Pierre Mendès-France, prime minister from June 1954 to February 1955. Mendès-France symbolised everything that Poujade hated. He was a Paris-born Jew, overseeing the end of the French Empire in Indochina and Tunisia, while championing the economic modernisation that threatened provincial France. Poujadism was eclipsed by the return to power in May 1958 of Charles de Gaulle, the Second World War Resistance leader. Under de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic carried through a policy of decolonisation and modernisation, which won popular support as de Gaulle called upon the French to embrace the economic realities of the 20th century. 
 
 
Pierre Poujade at his home, 1956 © Keystone/Getty Images.
 
In this context right-wing populism did not return to French politics until the National Front was formed in 1972. Led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, an erstwhile Poujadist deputy and veteran of the Algerian War, the party won  a major electoral breakthrough at the 1984 European Elections, when it secured some two million votes on a protest platform that was anti-establishment, anti-communist and above all anti-immigrant. Indeed National Front posters claimed that the solution to unemployment was simple – deport immigrants. Le Pen continually laid all of France’s ills at the door of these migrant populations, mostly drawn from the ex-colonies, on the grounds that these people have no roots in French culture, a modern reworking of Maurras. In 2002, Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections where he lost to Jacques Chirac, who won with 82 per cent, the biggest majority in French presidential history. The result marked the limit to Le Pen’s electoral appeal, which is why Marine Le Pen, his youngest daughter,  has sought to transform the party’s image. Taking over the reins of power in 2011, she has marginalised the old guard, some of whom still espoused Vichy-style sentiments, even expelling her father in 2015 for comments belittling the Holocaust. Nevertheless, like her father, her principal target is multiculturalism, which she sees as destroying the true France through the acceptance of Islam. In 2010 she called for the ‘de-Islamicisation of France’, likening Muslims praying in the streets of Paris to Nazi occupation:
 
For those who want to talk a lot about World War Two, if it’s about occupation, then we could also talk about it [Muslim prayers in the streets] because that is occupation of territory ... There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents.
 
With this rebranding of the National Front, Le Pen made it through to the second round of the 2017 presidential elections, although she was soundly beaten by Emmanuel Macron, who secured 66 per cent of the vote. The rebranding then continued with a name change to National Rally (Rassemblement National) in advance of the 2019 European elections, where Marine Le Pen’s party topped the French poll with 23 per cent of the vote. Yet, despite the new name the message remains the same – an insurgent politics against an out of touch elite which, echoing the arguments of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, has also been a key slogan of the huge grassroots movement – the gilets jaunes – against Macron since November 2018,  albeit one that arguably owes as much to the left revolutionary tradition as it does to right-wing populism. 
 
Martin Evans is Professor of Modern European History at Sussex University and the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press, 2012).